It's the right time of the year to be thinking about boeuf bourguignon and steak frites, that's for sure. Dig in at Brasserie By Niche. Here's the link to a review from St. Louis Magazine's blog.
It's the right time of the year to be thinking about boeuf bourguignon and steak frites, that's for sure. Dig in at Brasserie By Niche. Here's the link to a review from St. Louis Magazine's blog.
How is it that some creative works seem dated but others remain as fresh and impressive as when they were first born? Is it solely because of universal themes and the constancy of human emotions? Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" has opened at HotCity Theater, around 30 years after it premiered in New York City. Written and set during the very earliest years of the AIDS epidemic in Manhattan, pretty much the eye of the storm, it rails wildly against the inertia of the establishment, both gay and straight, in the face of the disease, when almost nothing was known about it.
The play remains shockingly moving, especially, perhaps, because we've forgotten (or never knew, in the case of younger persons) just how bad things were. It's like going back and reading a book about Watergate - one remembers again how frightening the problems were.
It is, in many ways, autobiographical. Kramer was one of the earliest AIDS activists, and always one of the most outspoken and controversial; his play is about just such a man who challenges his peers, the government and the medical establishment to get up and meet the threat. Kramer says he has made his main character more outspoken than he was, but just how much more is arguable. The organizer, Ned, John Flack, does more than speak truth to power, at times he screams it, and a barrage of invective, too, caused by the inactivity of many and the snail's pace of the few that seem to move at all.
Ned is a man who, except for his anger, seems emotionally frozen - problem parents, years of psychotherapy, no long-term romantic relationships. The epidemic of this unnamed disease is beginning to gather steam as people present to doctors with strange infections and the purple lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma. Attention, to use the line from another play currently in town, must be paid, insists Ned. He lets down his guard with a reporter, Eric Dean White, he meets as he is badgering the New York Times and as they fall in love, he softens. But not much and only at home.
Flack's Ned is someone we've all known, brittle, angry, closed-off. He's always been close to the edge and this is all too much. It's a great performance, loud, yes, but within the character. White, a calmer guy by far, is deeply believable, but one doesn't sense much chemistry in this relationship until near the end of the play, perhaps a directorial decision.
Ned creates a group to attack the disease, as did Larry Kramer. Among the group are a bank vice president, the imposing Reginald Pierre, who tries to put the brakes on Ned for reasons that seem self-serving, an employee of the city health department who's utterly powerless and in fear of being fired, played by Tim Schall as struggling and reality-based, and Ben Watts' Tommy. Tommy's a hospital administrator, a soft Southern belle who can sometimes pour oil onto the roiled waters of the group. Good ensemble work from the group, especially as they watch Ned's eruptions. Ned's brother Ben, Greg Johnston, is not quite as stiff as Ned is wired, but he's a successful lawyer, and he, too, has a lot to watch out for.
My only quibble with the play is the physician, Emma Brookner, Lavonne Byers. Dr. Brookner, who's seeing lots of these cases, is in a wheelchair from polio. The saintly disabled person is far too easy a stock character to belong in this crowd, but Byers keeps her slow and steady and avoids going for easy sympathy - not that anyone will have any extra to offer, considering what's happening.
Sean Savoie's work with scenery and lighting works smoothly, and Patrick Burks' sound and projection does, too.
Marty Stanberry, who directed this play and is HotCity's artistic director, has given us something to sink our teeth and our emotion into. Hard stuff, but worthwhile.
The Normal Heart
through September 27
And now for something completely different. "One Man, Two Guvnors" is the first play of the Rep's current season. Although it's not the same sort of zaniness as Monty Python, it's certainly a deeply British piece of work that leaves audiences almost out of breath from laughing. And this from a work that came out of a 1743 play from the Venetian Carlo Goldoni? Yes, indeed.
It's Brighton, the once-elegant seaside resort town, in 1963. A skiffle band onstage, who remain a presence throughout the night, plays us in to an engagement party. The young lovers are the children of a low-level gangster and his attorney. A knock at the door brings in an old acquaintance, supposedly just killed, of the gangster. He wants a debt repaid, pronto, and, by the way, he was supposed to marry the gangster's daughter, not this guy she's holding hands with. Still, the money's the main thing, and the acquaintance brings in his bodyguard to show everyone he's serious about the demand.
Enter our hero, Francis Henshall, who's more flab than fab. It's a new job for Francis, and not very well paid. After he settles his boss, or guvnor, in a pub with rooms (and food) he accepts a second job as a factorum to anothr visitor staying at the pub. Of course, the two employers turn out to have a connection with each other beyond the frantic Francis.
Raymond McAnally is Francis. It's a demanding part, both physically and verbally. He's fast on his feet, despite his size, and deeply funny. When things run off-script, as they occasionally seem to do, he carries on, leaving a wake the size of a battleship's.
Delicious Karis Danish plays the googly-eyed Pauline, the bride-to-be who, if she were in Texas, would be described as dumb as a box of rocks. Her beloved, Luke Smith, wants to be an actor, leaving every bit of scenery appropriately and deeply chewed. Their fathers, Charlie "The Duck" Clench, Anthony Cochrane, and attorney Harry Dangle, who hangs precariously just this side of slimy, John Michalski, are fun to watch, but it's The Duck's old pal from their years in Brixton Prison, Lloyd Boateng, who gets the best lines. Lloyd, Mel Johnson, Jr., learned a trade in prison and he's running the kitchen at the gastropub.
Francis' other boss, Jack Fellows playing Stanley Stubbers, is a ghastly fine example of the English "public" [read: private] school educational system. It's a mirror-opposite of Dolly, The Duck's bookkeeper, , Ruth Pferdehirt, the seemingly dumb blonde who doesn't have particularly high standards in men but who may be the smartest one in the bunch. Evan Zes leans into his role as Alfie, the waiter at the pub.
It's an outstanding piece of stage work, pretty much a don't-miss. One always has the feeling that plays like this are as much choreographed as directed; the director is Edward Stern, a frequent guest at the Rep. His delegates the physical comedy directing to Leland Faulkner who deserves much credit as well. The show exceeds even the Rep's usual high standards.
And one story about the play: The last time Joe and I were in England, in the summer of 2011, our last day in town was unexpectedly spent at the funeral of Fran Landesman, former St. Louis resident, one-time queen of Gaslight Square, poet and lyricist. We'd taken a cab to the crematorium where the event took place and hitched a ride back to the Landesman house with two childhood friends of the Landesman sons, Cosmo and Myles. One of the guys, who was dressed like John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, was a cab driver and actor who sang "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" at the funeral. And the other? It turned out he was an actor, too. Working, in fact. The play had opened two months before, and he was playing an ex-con named Lloyd Boateng in something called "One Man, Two Guvnors".
One Man, Two Guvnors
through October 5
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
"Fiddler On The Roof" is a warhorse. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it's been done by schools and amateur groups for decades. And yet...and yet...theater finds itself returning to it time after time. And audiences do, too.
We've been reminded this year that that period of time was a fertile one on Broadway, with several shows of that era showcasing great scores. That's surely one of the great charms of Fiddler. One of my friends who's definitely not a regular theater-goer remarked she could sing the entire score because she played the record over and over again when she was younger.
Stages St. Louis has opened its version of "Fiddler" and reminded us all why it's a timeless show. Led by Bruce Sabath as Tevye, the chatty and long-suffering dairy farmer, it's a solid ensemble that's been extremely well-staged. This is not the Zero Mostel Tevye; Sabath's Tevye is more human and less a comic character - although not above an appropriate eye roll now and then. His wife, a character that should not be described as "long-suffering", thank you very much, is Kari Ely, fire and ice in a babushka.
Five daughters for whom husbands must be found, and only the last two can be put off for a few years - this is Tevye's task. Tzeitel, the eldest, Stephanie Lynne Mason, only has eyes for childhood friend Motel (pronounce that Mottle, please), a struggling tailor played by Nick Orfanella, but has another offer from Lazar Wolf, Christopher Limber, an older, successful butcher. And so the hijinks begin.
Hodel, the next in line and played by Julie Hanson, is wooed by the wandering intellectual Perchik, Jacon Michael Evans (who's a local guy transplanted to New York - Parkway North, if you were going to ask). Carissa Massaro, the middle daughter Chava, catches the eye of a Russian soldier, a gentile, Fyedka, David Bryant Johnson, at a time when pogroms are happening nearby. The girls and their swains work well together, and the voices are first-rate for this score. All this mild little romancing greatly frustrates Yente, the matchmaker, of course, and her shrieks and kvetching, courtesy of Rachel Coloff, punctuate the show. (Trivia fans: Bea Arthur, yes, of Golden Girls, originated this role on Broadway.)
Lou Bird's costumes reach their apogee in Motel's suits - hey, we're sure he's making them himself, after all, so they certainly whould be perfectly fitted. And the skirts swirl noticeably well during the musical numbers, the choreography of Jerome Robbins reproduced on this (probably remarkably smaller) stage by Gary John LaRosa. James Wolk's scenic design gives a nod of the head to Marc Chagall but not hitting us over the head with it, and Hamilton's staging of "Sabbath Prayer" in the first act is particularly notable.
Fun and very popular with this audience - several performances have already sold out.
Fiddler on the Roof
Stages St. Louis
Kirkwood Community Center
through October 5th
"The Great American Trailer Park Musical" will never be done at Opera Theatre. Of course not. With a name like that, though, one ought to be entitled to a good romp. And that's what Dramatic License Productions is delivering to audiences.
It's not without flaws, but it's bawdily funny without being totally tasteless, and, more intriguingly, manages to treat its characters with some respect. I may have had more experience with mobile home parks than some people. At one point in my life I came very close to having to live in a mobile home. I've had family members living in them. One of my oldest friends created a dwelling space in his that came amazingly close to elegant. So it was interesting to see how director Alan Knoll has given these folks, despite being caricatures to varying degrees, some dignity.
They're not costumed by Lisa Hazelhorst as something out of the Beverly Hillbillies or Dogpatch. I don't believe I saw any heads full of hair rollers, and the only bedroom slippers were on the agoraphobic housewife who couldn't get out her front door. The residents of Armadillo Acres are clean and tidy, folks just trying to get along.
Director Knoll is better known in these parts as one of the best comic actors around. His touch is apparent throughout the show. - it's clearly Knoll droll. The timing is great, the delivery smooth. He gets great work from his cast, beginning with Kim Furlow, who's lived at the trailer park for decades and buried her husband there. There's no fourth wall here; Furlow's character Betty talks to us throughout the show. She and her two sidekicks Linn (because her name is Linoleum) played by Stephanie Merritt and Pickles (because she thinks she is having a false pregnancy), Stephanie Benware, are a Greek chorus to the action.
The agoraphobe, Jamie Lynn Eros, and her husband the toll booth collector, Jeffrey Pruett, are a great pair. Both have good voices, and so does the third member of this love triangle, Leah Stewart. In fact, everyone sings well. However, as is often the case at many of the smaller venues in town, the problem is the audio levels. The band overrides the vocals much of the time. In a show where the lyrics are presumably part of the amusement, it's particularly annoying.
Still, the musical numbers can be a lot of fun, in part thanks to choreographer Zachary Stefaniak. The close of Act I begins with Furlow appearing a la Mae West, complete with chorus boy, continues with the Greek chorus girls looking and moving like the women from Mamma Mia!, and ends up with the whole cast, including Pruett in a John Travolta Stayin' Alive suit and set of moves. Over the top? Of course.
An evening of froth and silliness. The world has been grim lately; here's a nice change.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical
through September 21
Dramatic License Productions
Chesterfield Mall (upper level near Sears)
Is Tony's really so different from similarly-priced restaurants in town? Is there another place we explain carefully to outsiders and the unfamiliar? I don't think so, and it seems to me that what makes the difference is the aura of the place. Diners today expect servers to say, "Hi, I'm Phil and I'll be your server tonight. You guys doing okay? How 'bout them [insert name of seasonally appropriate team here], eh?" Diners may not like it, but that casualness, to one degree or another, is how it rolls most of the time.
That's not how it goes at the House of Bommarito. A generation (or two) who grew up without neckties may never have experienced a restaurant where the general idea is to make a guest feel like they were sitting on a velvet cushion filled with swans' down. Happily, this does not come off as snootiness except for a very few those who arrive expecting it. I've always prepared our next generation of budding Eaters by saying something like, "Just pretend you're a princess." My next line, inserted when appropriate is, " And remember, princesses are always polite." (None of the family's young princes have had a Tony's opportunity yet.)
Last year's redecorating has changed the bar substantially, and to a lesser degree the dining rooms' walls and art. The long hall approaching the maitre d's stand remains, giving one the pleasant sensation of Making An Entrance. There were anticipated menu changes, although it was hard to imagine the house classics being removed.
It was time to visit and skip favorites to investigate the new - at least to some degree. So no succumbing to the scallops with truffle as a first course, since they were still on the menu. But my tablemate fell for the oxtail consomme, one of the rotation of soups the house does so well. Perfectly clear, with a few carefully carved vegetable pieces in the bottom of the bowl, it was the classic dark brown, with notes of vegetable and just a light hit of clove in there as well. New to the menu and probably seasonal was vitello tonnato. A classic Italian summer dish, this involves cold slices of veal topped with a tuna mayonnaise. Capers add piquancy, and it appeared that some lemon kicked the mayo up a notch - an absolutely delicious dish.
Came now, in a first-course style, the Italian way (although there would never be a problem having it as a main course; this kitchen is nothing if not flexible), a housemade fettucini with duck confit and wild mushrooms. This was quite possibly the most splendid dish of the night, duck and mushroom juices cuddling up with the pasta and nice bits of the meat and various mushrooms, deeply savory and rich. Perhaps it wasn't the proper dish for a hot summer night, but sometimes tastes good overrules good taste, and this was certainly worthwhile.
Steak has always been one of the sleepers on the menu here. Every one I've had over the years was excellent. And since the lamb chops have been removed from the menu - hard to get consistently good ones, says owner Vince Bommarito - I've had a number of them. Never the pepper steak, which is two immense slices of strip steak, seasoned with coarsely ground black pepper and served with a green peppercorn sauce, fragrant with brandy. Chicken with grapefruit, fennel and olives sounded intriguing. When it arrived, two "airplane cuts", boneless breast with the first joint of the wing attached, roasted, sat above a tangle of onion and fennel, nuggets of black olive here and there. Small pieces of pink grapefruit topped the dish. The aroma was seductive, and the vegetables and fruit quite tasty, fortunately, since the chicken was overcooked.
My advice has always been to pace oneself here to allow for dessert. Products of the estimable Helen Fletcher, they're invariably luscious. Allowing for my traditional bow in the direction of the chocolate cake (here called a torte) and housemade banana ice cream, there was another choice that lured this time, a chocolate and coconut fantasy that began with a chocolate tart, its crust a rich chocolate dough, the filling shredded coconut and topped with chocolate ganache. It then went on to coconut ice cream with a nicely gooey fudge sauce. Absolutely killer, especially the ice crem, and I may have to get some of that instead of the banana the next time I get the chocolate cake.
The noise levels here are worthy of note - even on a busy night, conversations are easy, and on a quieter night, it's not hushed, but merely calm. It's always a good spot for people watching - two movers and a shaker were at the next table on this visit, for instance, at a table where we saw Tim McCarver a few years ago. Service purrs along, almost unnoticeable until the chafing dishes are wheeled up, the aroma wafts past the nose and the food is presented with a (restrained) flourish.
Still a splendid place for a proper, leisurely celebratory dinner.
410 Market St.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes, but call ahead for another door
It seems like many of the most powerful works about crises come out of the middle of them, rather than being written or sung or painted with the benefit of hindsight. Certainly no single work of art can capture more than a millisecond of the situation, especially one as complex and long-lasting as the Middle East. But in Human Terrain, which received its world premiere on August 29 in the respectful arms of Mustard Seed Theatre, we have a look at Fallujah in the mid-2000's.
And more specifically, it's a look at a woman in the middle of the conflict - not an Iraqui, but an American woman, a civilian employee attached to a military unit. She's an anthropologist, brought in to do mapping of the human terrain - there is such a project - in order to better understand the country, and presumably its power structure on a micro as well as a macro scale.
Mabry (a first name, pronounced with a long "a"), played by Melisssa Gerth, seems slightly more self-assured than a PhD fresh from academia's ivory towers might be, but hardly with a core of steel. The commanding officer, B. Weller, emphatically points out that she's his responsibility and under his command. The pair are a fine contrast, Gerth's slightly wispy character and Weller transitioning from explosive to human - whatever it takes to make things work. Not long after she arrives, there's an order that such civilian employees must have a guard and so she can no longer go out practicing her language skills without having what is in effect a nanny. This inhibits conversation with the natives even more than she's already encountered - which is plenty. She's met an Iraqi woman and they become friends, although life seems generally a game of "Who Do You Trust?"
There's one scene with a considerable discussion of veiling, which reminds us of the pleasures and even the powers of invisibility. (Hermione Grainger, please discuss.) That's something that we haven't heard much, if anything about, but is worthy of at least some mulling. Wendy Greenwood does good work as Adilah, the woman with the veil.
Fine tech work, too,as is Mustard Seed's habit, especially John Stark's set design. Playwright Jennifer Blackmer's script could use a little tightening, especially in the scenes where much of the dialogue is in what I assume is Arabic, the primary language of Iraq. But the tale is a good and valid one and the transitions in time are very smoothly handled, not always easy to do. But like the situation in the Middle East, there's no easy answer. In fact, there may not be an answer at all.
through September 14, 2014
Mustard Seed Theatre
St. Louis Magazine is using some of my restaurant reviews, so I am happy to say that you can read about it here. Other reviews, plus theater, travel and whatever strikes my whimsy will continue to be here, and, as always, I'll provide these links to the SLM material
It was, for many years, almost an adjunct dining room for the Barnes, Washington U Med School, Jewish and St. Louis College of Pharmacy students. That's how I met it. When it closed in the spring, I wrote this for St. Louis Magazine.
Brunch in New York can be
a.) a contact sport,
b.) excellent people watching
e.) all of the above
The correct answer is, naturally, "e". Experienced test-takers know to re-read questions to look for
key words, and here the key is "can be". Not "is", at least not necessarily. I've found a spot that's very good on several of those counts, not perfect, but rewarding in many ways.
The Tribeca Grand Hotel, just south of Canal Street, is one of those old buildings re-purposed as a hotel. Brunch is served in the Church Lounge, which is to say several areas on the first floor, an atrium, booths with large windows and the bar itself. It's dramatic and the art work quite serious. The building takes up an entire block and on at least three sides of it, it's unmarked, so despite the Google map, we were guessing until we saw a large clock on the street with the hotel's name in small, elegant letters.
This is a fashionable hotel in a hot neighborhood, so it was a surprise to see the price point for the buffet brunch, complete with live music. $26 for adults, $15 for children, and for an additional $15, two hours of unlimited mimosas, Bellinis or bloody Marys. Given the cost of cocktails in New York, this latter is quite a surprise, too. So what's the trade-off?
Not surprisingly, this is not one of those buffets that would be at home in a Tudor banqueting hall. (For that, plan on the Waldorf-Astoria - except in the summer, when they tell me it's doesn't operate.) But what they offer is of high quality. The only things brought to one's table are cocktails; coffee as well as juice is fetch-it-yourself, a bit of a downer.
On the cold table, one is greeted by first-rate lox and sable from the esteemed traditional purveyor Russ & Daughters. Bagels, of course, cream cheese, sliced tomato and onions - and a new fillip, guacamole, assertively seasoned. Green salads, of course, including one with watercress, dice of beet and tomato and candied pecans, plus fruit salad and one with blackeyed peas. Never thought I'd see that ingredient in lower Manhattan. Also offered was a Spanish tortilla, the open-face omelet often served at room temperature. Theirs was filled with bits of various vegetables, a little insipid compared to some of the onion-laced versions found elsewhere. And the potatoes so necessary to any brunch are here, too, strangely enough, a lacy sheet of crisply fried matchstick-sized potato strings that doesn't suffer from being away from the heat. Also wedges of lemon-roasted potato - and those really should be warm, although they're pretty tasty.
The hot food is over on the bar, and aims pretty much exclusively at breakfast items. There's an omelet station, of course, although one guest reported getting The Look when she asked for a couple of eggs over easy. On the other hand, I saw another guest do the same and the request was quickly complied with. This also where the fat, tender Belgian waffles are turned out, with warm, real maple syrup. There's ham, lean but very moist, a light cure and a glaze with just a little pop to it. The link sausages are first-rate, un-greasy but not tough, just a hint of warm spices like cinnamon among the pepper and maybe even some sage for them. And bacon? Bacon comes from another well-known supplier, Benton's of Tennessee, plenty lean, not soggy from a steam table, some of it crisp and some of it almost like country ham in its texture, and not heavily brined. Good stuff.
The dessert headliner is the doughnuts from the Doughnut Factory, although on my visit, the plain cake doughnuts, an unusual offering from a place known for its more exotic choices, were rather dry. The dessert of choice was a bundt-cake-looking pound cake with blackberries, best taken with what labels said were clotted cream and lemon curd. By classic standards, it was more like creme fraiche and a lemon sauce, less rich than a curd but properly lemony. The cake/cream/lemon combination was a fine finale.
The biggest downside was the service. Plates piled up on the table until one of my pals grabbed a passing server to request their removal. Cocktails took at least 10 minutes to arrive when first ordered, although the second round came with more alacrity. We had to physically take a salt shaker from a table across the way because no one walked by or gazed our way. No one was rude. They were just disorganized, or rookies , or perhaps hung over.
I think this place is worthwhile - not a gem, but fun. For most folks, it's a new neighborhood, the people watching (a local crowd) is good, the music is nice, the noise levels are acceptable, and much of the food is tasty. The service is just plain erratic. But this is good bang for the buck, and there's always Chinatown for an after-brunch stroll.
Tribeca Grand Hotel
2 Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.), New York
Brunch Sat. (live DJ) and Sun. (live jazz) 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Ah, casino buffets...visions of the horn of plenty, slightly out of tune, perhaps, but tootling "We're In The Money" as food pours out, filling tables to overwhelming. Fruit rolls off the side, a turkey tips at an unseemly angle, pies and cakes vie for space with potato salad - that sort of thing. Casinos, at least those out here in the provinces, seem to stock their buffet with fairly awful stuff or surprisingly good. (It's probably true in Vegas as well; we just never hear about it.) And since St. Louis is perpetually in search of a really good brunch buffet, we thought about casinos.
River City Casino's buffets hold forth at The Great Food Exposition restaurant. (Park on the north end of the building to avoid a trip through the gaming floor.) The room has a couple of surprises for newcomers. One is that there are actually windows that look outside, an unusual thing in casinos, where they prefer that people not know even faintly what time it is. The windows are screened heavily from the view of the parking lot by plenty of trees, but the bucolic effect is quite nice. The other is that the aroma of cigarettes inside the entrance and following one down the hall is intense and apparently permanent. (Wry aside: Leaving that same entrance one sees several "No Smoking" signs. Outside.) It persists as one enters the restaurant, stops at the pay station, explains one's beverage choice and starts to be escorted to a table. Happily, both the dining areas and the long buffet counters are free of the scent. If they can manage the aroma that well, why not take the air-cleaning even farther down the hall?
The large salad and soup bar that greets guests is not much to become excited about, even though there's soup on it too - as well as oatmeal and grits. Experienced buffet folks know soups fills up the diner too fast. But hold fast - the best salads aren't actually on the salad bar. Croissants and corn muffins are, though, and real butter, an encouraging sign.
Cold items are on the far ends of the main buffet, hot ones in the center. Sushi is forgettable, but nearby is a rather attractive antipasto selection with grilled marinated portobello slices, sauteed asparagus not overcooked, little balls of mozzarella in a balsamic dressing, and thinly sliced capicola, dry-cured pork, a little spicy and quite nice. Shrimp, of course, hanging out in this neighborhood, and they, too, are tasty, not overcooked nor watery. A couple of different kinds of marinated salads, like artichoke and sweet pepper, show up, as well.
The usual large pieces of meat are around, salmon, turkey breast, ham - but instead of prime rib, there was sliced flank steak, some of it actually rare, and very tasty it was. Fried chicken, excelled, fresh, well-seasoned and not at all greasy. Another odd arrangement was that the chicken was with the pastas, and quite a distance from very good mashed potatoes and intriguingly spiced sweet potatoes.
An Asian section began with more interesting small salads, cucumber, a sort of slaw, and went on to crab rangoon, good but with an unusual sweetness, shrimp shu mai, the dim sum dumpling that weren't in a steamer but had been cooked somehow so that the rice dough covering had almost crisped, and what was, in effect, some sweet and sour chicken. Asian short ribs, said the tag - not pretty to look at, dark brown, the grain of the meat almost resembling the grain of wood. But so free of fat and gristle they might not have actually been short ribs - and absolutely delicious, tender and surprisingly moist. The rice was actually in takeout boxes.
The breakfast section seemed to draw most of the attention, lots of bacon that stayed crisp rather than steam-table limp, moist sausage patties, scrambled eggs that didn't fare as well, and fabulous biscuits with a decent gravy. No Benedicts, but pancakes and the toughest French toast I've ever come across.
Waffles? No waffles? Oh, yes. But they were down in the desserts. Blueberry waffles, in fact. A number of mini-desserts, little apple crumbles and parfaits. Regular-sized slices of pie. A selection of sugar-free desserts. Skip the loaf cake, but look for the chocolate thingy that resembles a large Ding Dong, a thin layer of ganache covering chocolate cake topped with chocolate mousse, moist and chocolatey. Lots of kinds of ice cream scooped to order. But the don't-miss is warm bread pudding, tender and eggy and not overcooked, with a light caramel sauce. Also enough whipped cream to float a canoe, for any dessert you choose.
It's $20 for adults - but if you have their My Choice card (which is available elsewhere in the casino and can be used the day you get it), they take $2 off. Champagne or mimosas included. For kids 4-10 years old, it's $15. They do brunch both Saturday and Sunday, starting on Saturday at 11 a.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m., a nice touch.
River City Casino
777 River City Casino Blvd., Lemay
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Smoking: I saw no one smoking in the restaurant, but....
Buffet: $20 adults, $15 children
Sometimes I forget there are certain things that some people need to hear over and over. One of them is that there are lots of different ways to make pizza. The stuff that appeared in college dorms is not the only kind of pizza out there, and to go to a pizza place expecting what you've had before is, frequently these days, to set oneself up for a surprise.
There's a certain irony in the fact that across the street from A Pizza Story is a franchise pizza spot. You've probably gathered that I'm going to say that APS pizza is not the mass-produced stuff. It's Neapolitan style, the soft, thin crust with charred bubbles on the edge, one size, maybe 11 inches across. The double storefront on Manchester Avenue in Maplewood is simple, casual enough to be family-friendly and yet showing some style.
Why? Because they're pretty amazing. Forget the little leg-tassels you've had. As shown in the photo, these fellows are as big as onion rings. Twice as interesting, though. Part of it is that they're more tender than the rubber-band-y texture those tassels have. The other charm is their seasoned breading, slightly peppery, notes of garlic and perhaps onion, very satisfying. The puttanesca sauce with them is tasty but superfluous. One visit, the daily special was a caprese salad, tomato and mozzarella with just a touch of balsamic vinegar. Nothing innovative, certainly, but tasty despite the use of Roma tomatoes, which are not among the most flavorful of the breed.
The pizzas begin with the basic margarita, tomato, mozzarella and tomato sauce. Three of the six pizzas are vegetarian, by the way, and this is a kitchen that likes eggplant a lot, at least at this time of year. The Thriller adds oregano and Spanish chorizo to that. Spanish chorizo differs from its Mexican cousin in that it's rather like salami, a cured sausage that's sliced before its served. It's a spicy, less greasy change from pepperoni, and it worked wonderfully as a pizza topping.
A Space Opera - no, I don't know the exact origins of the name - was a take on the classic smoked salmon pizza from Wolfgang Puck. No caviar here, and ricotta instead of creme fraiche, topped with slivers of red onion, fronds of fresh dill and some salt-cured capers. A note to non-fanciers of capers: Their counterpoint of tartness and a little salt are perfect punctuation marks in the paragraph of the pizza. Tasty hot, equally good at room temperature, too.
Yes, dessert, tiramisu and housemade gelato, for instance, and bomboloni, often described as Italian doughnuts. Not quite - they're made here with the pizza dough, a little larger than shooter marbles, deep-fried, of course. They're chewy, a little sweet from the swoosh of powdered sugar across them and served with a light syrup flavored with orange. The syrup is what saves this from being an unremarkable dish, its almost flower-like orange flavor givng a smile to the dish.
Pleasant, attentive service, at table and bar, lots of different sorts of diners. Don't dress up.
A Pizza Story
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Yesterday afternoon I had the honor and pleasure of presenting this year's Joe Pollack Memorial Scholarships to two great young adults, Amber Lloyd, who wants to eventually do pharmaceutical research, and Edward Thirdkill II, who's aiming for his own business with computer engineering. The Scholarship Foundation is our vehicle for doing this for the St. Louis Media History Foundation, the folks who came up with the great idea.
That's a photo of Joe, my favorite, taken by my fabulous daughter-in-law, Jane, with Harry, the cat, on his lap. I brought it along for a little Show and Tell.
And, yes, the fund is still happily accepting donations! You can find out more about the organization here. Congratulations to Amber and Edward! The pleasure is ours.
"Quills" is about the Marquis de Sade. And if there's anyone out there who doesn't know who he is, sufficient to say that he's the person who gave his name to sadism. A film with Geoffrey Rush and based on this play came out several years ago but - I am told - is considerably different.
De Sade is held in what at the time would have been called an insane asylum or the French equivalent. It's the very early 1800's and de Sade's behavior, both on and off the printed page, has finally permanently put him away. But he lives a comfortable life, allowed furnishings, his own clothes and, oh, yes, paper, ink and quill pens. He's writing, writing, ahem, like mad, living his fantasy life vicariously. The sizzling stories are smuggled out by a young seamstress, but all is discovered when his cell is searched after a complaint - and some judiciously placed money - from the marquis' long-suffering wife.
The new head of the hospital orders his second in command, a priest with the newer theories of treating the patients with kindness, to stop the writing. And the battle begins.
This play is often viewed as a question of artistic freedom. We're not talking about Nelson Mandela writing from Robbin Island or Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul On Ice" here, though. There are, early on quotations from what he's writing, and they are deeply, frighteningly lewd. (The easily disturbed may be very uncomfortable.) Is this shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater?
But what comes far more immediately to my mind is a portrait of compulsive disorder and how it can destroy a person. Ted Gregory, not seen on local stages for many years, hypnotizing as a snake, stalks and seduces and spews his mania in all sorts of ways. One can argue there's a whole lotta flouncing going on, but French aristocrats seem not to have been known for their rugged manliness - despite all those Scots visiting the French court pre-revolution. It's a gripping performance.
The administration of the asylum is in a power struggle over the best way to cure their residents. The old style, advocated by the new boss, Doctor Royer-Collard, David Wassilak, is physical punishment, yea, torture - the rack will stretch those delusions out of them, right? Antonio Rodriguez, as the Abbe de Coulmier, second in command and the guy who seems to do all the actual work, has put into place more humane methods scorned by the medical establishment. Wassilak, cold as ice but secretly uxorious, is in danger of losing his job because of the marquis' stories becoming public. Rodriguez' priest, a man in very strong control of himself (although we see glimpses of rather human impulses), does as he's ordered but not without arguments. The two men are each as proper and reserved as their antagonist is raucous and inflammatory. Excellent work by both actors.
Kudos, too, to Stacie Knock playing the marquis' wife, who has gone back to her, uh, maiden name, and Caitlin Mickey as the seamstress and, briefly, as the doctor's wife. That wife, by the way, is having a lovely new chateau built for her by her desperate husband, and there's this architect, played by Charlie Barron...but that's another story line. Great costumes, including a spectacular decolletage, from Cyndi Lohrmann, and a very nice set from Dunsi Dai.
The Doug Wright script under the watchful eye of director Brooke Edwards can be, despite the subject matter, quite funny, ranging from broad to sly. At one point the abbe says to the doctor, "It's bedlam out there." The word bedlam is the London mispronunciation of Bethlem Royal Hospital, an asylum where on Sundays, the curious would pay a small fee to enter and be amused by the poor souls. An inside gag, it slips by unnoticed. The script lags a bit in the late second act, but for the most part keeps us drawn in, far in. De Sade's anticlericalism does strike a very contemporary note, by the way.
Not for the easily or even semi-easily offended, but very worthwhile theater.
through August 17
Max & Louie Productions
Wool Studio Theatre
Jewish Community Center
"And who carries around an egg salad sandwich in their pocket?"
That's a sample of dialogue from "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll". It's Joe Hanrahan, our own Man In Black and leading local purveyor of author Eric Bogosian's works, in the opening monologue of this 75-minute spree. This particular fellow is a street person who collects bottles "and cans! - mustn't forget, cans, too!"; nine other individuals follow the bottleman's appearance, all in the form of Hanrahan.
This is surely an actor's eqivalent of a couple of hours of cardio exercise, no breaks except to throw on a jacket or remove a hat, no one to bounce lines off, just the actor, the lights and the audience. It's intimate, as all Hanrahan's one-man shows are. He's using the cellar at Herbie's Vintage 72, and that makes it easy for the audience to bring a glass of wine or a cocktail down with them. In fact, one thoughtful guy brought his female companion an order of the chocolate fritters, a signature dish of the restaurant - they did, however, manage to finish them before the performance began, and thank you very much for that, sir.
If you aren't familiar with Bogosian, the title should give you some clue that strong subject matter is at hand. He has little sympathy for few of his characters except the bottleman. Despite the play's being more than twenty years old, it's held up well, with a few minor changes - I'm pretty sure Bogosian's original script didn't refer to Schnuck's. Whacks at religion, greed, self-aggrandizing self-help, celebrity, all pass under his gimlet eye.
It's rough going, not very cheerful, although quite funny much of the time. And anyone who can get humor out of some of these situations deserves plaudits. Hanrahan doens't miss a beat. At times one has to remind oneself that this is the same guy that a few minutes ago was being the divorced father talking to his therapist. Voices change, facies change, Hanrahan remains.
Funny, yes, but like much satire - because that's what this is, essentially - it's tough stuff. No intermission; just head upstairs for a good stiff drink and avoid looking at the baseball scores.
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
through August 17
Herbie's Vintage 72
405 N. Euclid Ave.
There's been lots of discussion about the proliferation of barbeque restaurants around town in the past year or so. But under the radar, there's another kind of restaurant that's absolutely mushrooming up. We've seen a near-explosion of Indian spots hereabouts, and I, for one, intend to pay attention to them. I'm missing the Curry Mate, alas, but sometimes eating alone can give opportunity for interesting and instructive conversations.
Just as I began to realize this increase, I came across Peshwa. Subtitled The Royal Indian Cuisine and located on Page between I-170 and Lindbergh, it's where the original Gokul was. (Parking at the side and back of the building.) Lunch buffet, like most of the local South Asian restaurants, is $9, very reasonable. It's not an immense buffet, but it's certainly an interesting one. And the diners, early in the period the buffet runs (it opens at 11.30 a.m.), certainly appeared to be people who'd know what they were eating. Even better, when I looked at the buffet, there were dishes that weren't the standard ones found all over town. Some classics, yes, but others - well, read on.
A particularly gracious note is that on the sneeze guards over the buffet, the name of each dish was written. Primarily vegetarian options; the three chicken items were on another buffet from the vege ones. And since the real strength of the various cuisines of India is, at least to me, in their vegetables, here was where the interest level went up. Because the first thing I noticed was cabbage. I've never seen it on an Indian menu, and I admit that, cooked, it's not one of my favorite vegetables. But this could woo almost anyone, not spicy-hot but deeply savory, mixed with cooked mung beans, it was delicious. Vegetable korma, creamy and lightly sweet, as it should be, charmed, and so did a thicker, slightly spicier chickpea chana masala.
Also a surprise were hara bhara, vegetable kebabs - not on skewers, mind you, but dark chunks that were emerald green inside, a little chewy, a really subtle but complex flavor. I'm sure there was spinach in there and chickpea flour, or gram. They must have been deep-fried, but they weren't at all greasy. Dal, the lentils always found on such buffets, were described as "fried". The flavor was sort of sweet-spicy with a little sour note in it, and the frying refers to the cooking of seasonings. Another new dish was sprouted matki, or moth, beans, rather small, like alfalfa sprouts in terms of size - not a particularly handsome dish, but an interesting one.
Three chicken dishes, tandoori, nice and smoky, butter chicken, a curry we don't see much of but deserving of applause, very creamy and rich, and what they called malvani chicken, "malvani" referring to a part of Goa and an adjacent province. Coconut, common in that southern cooking, but lots of other things, and a little sweet. All the chicken dishes except the malvani were barely warm, unlike the vegetarian options.
A stack of very crisp and fresh pappadums awaited, with the sweet tamarind and the spicy cilantro chutneys. Raita, the cooling yogurt sauce, had more than just a few cucumber bits in it, too. The naan was fresh, buttery and absolutely addictive, the best I've had in a long time. There was dessert, too, a pan that looked liked mashed sweet potatoes but was marked pineapple sheera. It's a semolina pudding, seasoned with cardamom, whose somewhat citrus-y flavor plays nicely with the crushed pineapple.
The evening menu, too, is different - fewer of the appetizers are deep-fried, there are seven different kinds of chaat, the savory snack-y dishes and lots of vegetarian entrees.
As I was paying my bill, I remarked to the woman at the cash register who seemed to be the manager that it was nice to see different foods. "So many dishes from all parts of India," she explained. "Why keep putting out the same things?" Wise woman. Good food.
10633 Page Avenue
Lunch and Dinner Wed.-Mon.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Lunch Buffet: $9
Is it really 16 years that The Crossing has been feeding us? Hard to believe the spot that New York's Restaurant Daniel (as in Bolud) begat is that far into middle-age-for-a-restaurant. Over the years, they haven't blunted the food, dumbed it down, in any appreciable way. When asked ten years ago or so if he would add outside dining to his flagship, his response was, "Nope. This isn't outside food."
And indeed it is not the casual sort of chow that doesn't keep the attention of the diner. They continue to deliver food for those who want something to ponder over. There are still some of the see-and-be-seen crowd there, to be sure, but it's the opposite of the Restaurant Of the Moment, people who appreciate what they're eating and the smooth service that delivers it. The dress (particularly, one suspects, at this time of year) is more casual than it once was, and there is none of that "hallowed ground" feeling in the air, though.
Not surprisingly, the menu reflects what's available at any given time, but some things are a constant. The first example is more than constant, it's a tradition, the crock of onion-cheese souffle that arrives warm at each table with crostini for dipping or spreading. Addictive, that's the only word. One could spent far too much time at the small bar with wine and this.
Another example is the goat cheese and beet salad. Was The Crossing the first in St. Louis with it? Layered and topped with a small tangle of watercress, it still charms, the earthy deep notes of the beets a classic contrast with the delicate tang of the cheese, and a little pesto to swoop bites of the combination through. Our soup du jour (or soir) was a cold corn soup, seemingly very simple, so that its rich flavor of pure sweet corn was a surprise. Local tomatoes and a supporting cast of roasted peppers, red onions, blue cheese and some lemon-touched greens stood out.
The Crossing's common ownership with Acero in Maplewood is evident with a single bite of a pasta offering - plus the fact that Acero's signature egg raviolo is on the menu. A bite of stracci, "ragged" pasta, with a fine classic Bolognese sauce, tomato mellowed with a little cream, proved it, the sauce nubbly with bits of beef and vegetable, the pasta properly al dente. A crab cake, creamy interior and crisp exterior, rode a pool of nicely tangy remoulade sauce, with a few leaves of arugula to wipe up its last drops.
From the main courses, tilapia, normally a snoozer of a fish, came sauced with a killer mushroom beurre blanc sauce, absolutely singing on the plate, and accompanied by flash-sauteed baby spinach, a particularly remarkable dish. Slices of lamb loin, spiced in the Moroccan style with cinnamon and cumin and a little pepper, lean, tender and moist, excelled. A strip steak, carefully trimmed, had a wild mushroom sauce that enhanced the meat's already first-rate flavor.
The menu offers two tasting meals, at $32 or $45 per person, four courses. Many items from the regular menu are on the tasting menus, and those that aren't can be swapped out for what seems like a relatively minor upcharge. The steak was an extra $5, but like all the courses in the tasting menu, it was smaller than the stand-alone dish would have been - this was perhaps a 5- or 6-ounce serving. It's a nice opportunity to try many things and not waddle out feeling like you've had Thanksgiving dinner.
Dessert? Peach upside down cake, more delicate than what my aunts used to make by far, and some good peaches, tart-sweet as the early ones are. Mixed berry cobbler, an individual ramekin, with a streusel-ish topping, and some lemon mascarpone gelato. A deeply chocolate single-layer gateau, served warm. And a cheese plate.
The usual pleasant, knowledgeable service, patient with a rather gabby group of guests at our table and not removing plates before every one was finished with a course - one shouldn't have to mention this, but it's come up recently at a spot that should know better.
7823 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Entrees: $33-$38 (but see tasting menu discussion above)
There's a lot to like in Stray Dog Theatre's production of "Funny Girl". Lindsey Jones, playing Fannie Brice, who became a Ziegfield and then radio star, sounds fabulous. Brice's husband (her second, a fact omitted in the show), Nicky Arnstein, is Jeffrey Wright, properly swainish and swinish by turns and showing a real gift for physical comedy in a seduction scene. Fanny's mother's poker-playing friends are a delight as a Greek chorus of worries and general yentas. (One of them in the original Broadway show was Jean Stapleton, who, of course, went on to become Edith Bunker.) And the small-but-mighty house band is a pleasure.
Jones after a while even manages to make us forget that this Jule Styne score virtually belongs to Barbara Streisand, who created the role on Broadway and in the film. That's pretty impressive. But here the Brice character is played like a middle-aged woman, sharp in her vocation but deeply naive in her personal life, all the way through the show, which spans the time from her late teens until her divorce from Arnstein, which in real life happened when she was around 36. It's disconcerting. She and Wright/Arnstein never seem to really smolder. Perhaps that's a deliberate decision to make us question Arnstein's motives from the start.
The Ziegfield chorus girls and boys display Zachary Stefaniak's choreography well. The costumes, from director Gary Bell doing double duty, fit the era well, although this wasn't a period of remarkable beauty to the modern eye - nevertheless, they're fun, especially the Ziegfield wedding scene. Florenz Ziegfield, Michael Monsey, is another watchable character, less tyrant-like than folklore would have him.
"Funny Girl" is another of those mid-60's musicals that we're just starting to appreciate, and here's a chance to find out why.
through August 9
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey
2336 Tennessee Ave.
Time marches on. It says something when one of the hot Broadway shows of one's youth now is a period piece. "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying", currently at Stages St. Louis, is just that. The last time I saw it, the whole sexist thing in it was just embarrassing. Now, it just seems a product of the times, like Berkeley Busby's chunky-by-today's-standards chorus girls.
That makes it easier to just sit back and enjoy the office antics of this comedy that satirizes the whole Man In The Grey Flannel Suit world. (And if you get that reference,the you'll also get one of the early jokes in the show that references Metrecal - canned diet shakes, they were, and perfectly ghastly.) But it's not necessary to even be a fan of "Mad Men" to have a good time. Machiavellian comedy is timeless, and the Frank Loesser score maintains its immense zip.
Here we have Ben Nordstrom as J. Pierrepont Finch, whose particularly angelic smile covers maniacal drive, and Betsey Dilellio, a newcomer to Stages, as Rosemary Pilkington, the secretary who's instantly smitten with Finch. Nordstrom, who turns out to be more of a hoofer than we realized, has the impishness that the role demands, although it takes us a while to figure out just how intent he really is on corporate success. Dilellio makes Rosemary stronger than is often seen, which may make her seeming docility puzzling until one accepts that her goal in life is indeed marrying into the rose-covered suburban home. There's nothing demure about her voice, though; she grabs these melodies and owns them.
The ever-watchable Whit Reichert has fun as boss J. B. Biggley. Nevertheless, it's the exquisitely blowsy Hedy LaRue, played by Heather Ayers that creates constant giggles. She's also the cause for the outbreak of the song, "A Secretary Is Not a Toy", another reminder of what era this is.
Costumes by Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird are from the intersection of Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy, including an hysterical "Paris Original", a dress causing another song. The set, though, is distracting, a series of plastic panels and aluminum strips, the backlit plastic changing colors often, the effect, sans color changes, reminiscent of some post-WW II office buildings in New York but just about as impressive.
Overall, though, a fun evening with some good performances, a certain amount of bawdiness, and fine songs.
How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
through August 17
Stages St. Louis
Kirkwood Civic Center
111 S. Geyer Rd, Kirkwood
Breakfast at Goody Goody Diner this morning, and a chance encounter with Ryan Safi, one of the two brothers who are buying the landmark restaurant. Ryan says he believes in the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thinking, which augurs well for Goody aficionados.
That said, however, the building just to the west was broke, or at least getting to that point. The Safis have bought it. It was at one time, the location of Melrose Pizzeria, and I'm carefully avoiding discussions of whether it was the original location or not - partisans exist on both sides of that argument. But it's been empty for years.
Or, rather, it was. It's been torn down, and they're going to expand the parking lot, welcome news to hungry folks who've overflowed the lot almost every day. And, in a more minor development, they've also put up a map with pins to show the range of their visitors. The VCU Lemons planted one in Richmond, VA, to mark this visit, and we've got plenty more Farflungs to drop by and pin the tale to their map.
Breakfast all day and now the chicken-fryer is turned on earlier than ever.
Connelly's Goody Goody Diner (and they're keeping the Connelly name)
5900 Natural Bridge Ave.
Breakfast and lunch Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
It really never occurred to me to ask David and Stephanie Stitt why they called part of Veritas' new location the Mustard Bar. If I'd thought about, I suppose I would have wondered if it was like a Bloody Mary bar or a taco bar, a line of garnishes spread out for ad lib usage. But mainly, at Veritas I think about the food, not the titles. The Stitt's son Mathis runs the kitchen, having pretty much grown up there.
The move last year a couple of miles south on Clarkson Road makes things seem roomier. The wine collection is now in a room toward the rear - and feel free to browse and perhaps pick out something for the meal being served, for a corkage fee of $10. There's a new cocktail menu, as well. Thursday through Saturday nights, they offer a more formal menu, varying week to week, but the lighter Mustard Bar menu is still available. All this review is looking at is the lighter food - the serious food will wait for another time.
The Mustard Bar proper is toward the front of the space, with a bar and some tables. The larger dining area faces an open kitchen. And here's why it ended up being dubbed the Mustard Bar. Three of these:
Ah, but let us talk about what's on the plates. A big pile of french fries lightly showered with parmesan and served with aioli, more lightly garlicked than it once was, could serve as a starter, or a good snack with a glass of wine. But they can also be had with the sandwiches, so for a foray in another direction, aim for the devils on horseback. The variations on the dish with this name are myriad, but Veritas has a prune stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, the whole thing fried, according to the menu. But it's so un-greasy that my guess is it's thrown briefly into a hot oven. It's a great combination of sweet/salty/smoky and chewy/crunchy/soft. Served on skewers, they're irresistible, and easy to share.
Five kinds of cheese go into the cheese panini, cheddar, Swiss, munster, feta and cream cheeses. Riding shotgun atop them are grilled onions and oven-dried tomatoes, the whole on a white artisan bread. It's absolutely killer, complex and satisfying. Egg salad may have met its perfect mate when it's served with a slice of prosciutto ham. It's comfort-food egg salad, creamy, a little chunky, the perfect mate for the salty ham, all on a croissant with some greens on the side. Speaking of sides, pay attention to the apple-beet slaw, crunchy, tangy with (aha!) mustard, and a wonderful color.
Veritas turns out to offer a remarkable hamburger, too. A large patty of good-quality beef rests under a crown of pimiento cheese, onions both pickled and in a jam, other housemade pickles, aioli and a slice of tomato. It's an excellent burger, but not for the obsessively tidy. The pork sandwich was nice enough, with slaw and pickled garlic on the shredded braised pork, but, frankly, even as fond as I am of the hog, it paled next to that burger.
Service was pleasant, although it's fair to point out that historically, it's been the weak spot in an otherwise-satisfying place to eat. I make no promises about what it might be like on the late-week nights with the bigger menu, or even at a truly busy lunch. On the other hand, when it's not packed, this is a pleasantly quiet spot, good for conversations.
If the address leaves you puzzled, they're in a large shopping plaza at the northeast corner of Clayton and Clarkson Roads. It's easy to see just after you turn in.
15860 Fountain Plaza, Ellisville
Lunch and Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Mustard Bar menu: $6-$15
The newest generation of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (to give the show its full legal title) opened with a celestial light show Monday night. The opening was delayed by rain about 35 minutes, and when the orchestra, part of this touring show, struck up the national anthem, the lightning to the south came darn close to being choreographed to the music. The lightning persisted in the distance for about three hours, and when Porgy stepped to the edge of the stage in Act Two and said, not ad-libbing, "I think there's gonna be a storm," it got a fair laugh.
There's been a lot of controversy over this version of the Gershwin/Heyward show. Stephen Sondheim wrote a blistering New York Times piece on the temerity of changing it, although the current version, of which he wrote, wasn't the first revision. Hilton Als, in the New Yorker, said criticisms were racist. Maybe this is like the question of the Latin mass - and I make that comparison as a non-Catholic. The fact is, what we see at the Muny in this version is exciting. My memories of the movie are faint, and what I recall from the Houston Opera Company's version several decades ago are the voices, not the book or the staging, and that it seemed to drag.
Not this edition, no way, no how. Gershwin music. Excellent choreography. A great cast. What's not to like? The themes are relevant and contemporary, and the whole feeling is fresh.
Porgy, liberated from the oft-seen goat cart and played by Nathaniel Stampley, makes us understand why Bess begins to lean into him, disability be damned. Alicia Hall Moran, as Bess, is less brittle and more human, even though she succumbs to temptation. Their duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" practically melts the stage from emotion. St. Louis native Kingsley Leggs gives us Sporting Life, the bad guy who's often charming, especially when he can make a profit, and who dances like the devil he is.
Porgy and Bess is an American classic, and especially for those who haven't seen it, this is a fine introduction. For the rest of us, it's a refresher. I'm glad The Muny booked it.
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
through July 13
Visitors from Manhattan last weekend deserved to be shown the Missouri countryside. So we drove down to Ste. Genevieve for some French Colonial architecture and then had lunch at Chaumette Vineyards & Winery. The joint was jumping, tables full on the front porch with live music, a few folks on the rear patio, the tasting area busy and - wait, were there tables open in the dining room? Yes, there were. Did we have a reservation? No - we had no idea what time we would be arriving. So there would be a 45-minute wait.
I go into this to talk about why this happens at restaurants. The folks there were very hospitable, made sure we had a place to sit and wait comfortably, and offered us a cold drink on the hot day. But it was clear with a few minutes' observation that they were stretched staffing-wise to their limit. Servers flew by. If they had seated us, we would have had to wait a long time, and with heightened expectations, probably, like why haven't they taken our order?or where's our food? There are no easy answers at a time like this, and it's go with the flow or go somewhere else. And if it makes any difference, yes, I was recognized.
But that's not why I'm telling you about this excursion. The food from Adam Lambay's kitchen was good, no surprise. Visitors oohed over the beautiful greens picked this morning and lightly dressed. They ahhed over a roast beef and cream/bleu cheese sandwich. But, oh, my, the hit of the meal was a vegetable wrap. Vegan, in fact, I suspect. Mixed mushrooms from Ozark Forest Mushrooms were sauteed and, along with grilled asparagus the size of a #5 knitting needle, baby spinach and some watercress, the latter two wilted down by the heat of the mushrooms, laid out on a roti, the whole wheat Indian flatbread akin to a tortilla. It was fabulous, the watercress adding just the right note of mystery to it, the mushrooms hearty and satisfying. Amazing that something that virtuous could be that good.
It's on the current menu - that sandwich was a daily special. But you probably will want to make a reservation if you know what time you'll be there.
The Grapevine Grill
Chaumette Vineyards and Winery
24345 Route WW, Ste. Genevieve
Lunch & Dinner Wed.-Sun, Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
For those made jaded by The Same Old Thing at brunch, let us introduce Hiro Asian Kitchen. Bernie Lee, the owner, is Malaysian, but his food picks up influences from all over Asia. His menu for brunch isn't immense, but the food is so new to most of us that a bigger menu could induce considerable indecision. It's difficult enough as it is.
Across Asia, a common breakfast is jook, also known as congee. Somewhere between a rice porridge and a thick soup, it's found everywhere from sidewalk stands to elegant hotel buffets, always served with add-ins. Basically pretty bland to an American palate, just like oatmeal or Cream of Wheat, it's the riffs that make it swing. Here it arrives with tasty strips of Asian eggplant, plenty of shiitake mushrooms, chicken, a little spinach and cut-up pieces of what's called Chinese donut, or youtiao. They're long strips of fried dough, savory rather than sweet, and add another texture to the melange. The whole thing is topped with a fried egg. Good stuff, and surprisingly complex. Want to crank it up yet more? Sriracha or soy sauce.
Considerably more local is Lee's take on the slinger. It arrives in a bowl, layers of tater tots sprinkled with cheese, then bulkogi, the Korean spicy grilled beef, very tender, and a fried egg drizzled with sriracha mayonnaise. This is a real Big Flavor choice, very satisfying except that it arrived with the stone bowl very hot and the food tepid - indeed, the egg was almost cold. Given the proper temperature, it's a good choice. We also got a chance to sample the beef rendang, a special, a braise with lemongrass, coconut, garlic and ginger, the gravy thick and sweet-hot, quite excellent.
Not beef, despite the menu, is the daji pai, described as chicken fried steak; close, but no cigar. This is a paillard of chicken, a chicken steak, if you will, that's been chicken-fried. There's a sauce of sweet corn - I'm always amused to see how Europe and Asia have taken to this so-American vegetable - and another, more mysterious, green one. Topped off with an egg, it was at once simple and complex, and the chicken itself was nice and juicy.
Farther from the beaten path were the breakfast baos. A bao is a bun, and in this case, it's steamed and folded in half to hold a little bacon, some scrambled egg, and lightly pickled fennel. The bacon is sprinkled with togarashi, a mix of spices and seeds, adding crunch and a little heat; the fennel, even to a pair of non-fanciers of fennel, was just right. The buns were small (Lee likens them to sliders) but thrilling. The bacon, baked to crispness, is also available as an a la carte side. Fresh berries were mounded atop a hill of whipped cream, part dairy and part coconut, unsweetened and delicate and charming.
Probably the most unusual item is the kaya toast. Very traditional in Singapore and Malaysia, it's a snack, often taken with coffee. Lee talks about his mother giving it to him after school. Toasted bread is spread with a smooth coconut jam and eaten warm. It's accompanied by an egg, the usual accompaniment, in which to dunk the sandwich, and some optional soy sauce. Very sweet, although the egg and soy sauce cut it some, very rich, but easily shareable. About the only miss was the dim sum platter, whose shrimp and pork dumplings looked different but tasted identical and the xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, which arrived with holes in each dumpling, losing the soup entirely.
Good coffee, made with chicory, although a mixup asking for cream brought what seemed to be soy milk. Service in general was extremely amiable but, as noted, a little discombobulated. Perhaps a couple of those seductive brunch cocktails would have made service feel completely smooth. But the food needs very little help.
Hiro Asian Kitchen
1405 Washington Ave.
Brunch Sun., Lunch Tues.-Sat., Dinner Tues.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Brunch entrees: $9-$12
A Facebook/blog entry from my Chowzter buddy Juliana Loh on one of our many delightful experiences at the gathering in London. One of the most accurate photos of me ever taken, gratis Ricky Ly, another Chowzter, from Orlando.
The rumblings heard from the direction of Clayton may have been at the Ritz Carlton. Changes are afoot in their restaurants. I went to a press meal at the Grill last week, and found several things worth remarking on.
Certainly I never thought I'd be nodding approvingly while eating a kale salad. Chic often doesn't do it for me, and kale often leaves eaters resembling cows with cuds. Tender, small-cut kale, goat cheese, almonds, heart of palm, an occasional strawberry and orange segment, all this with a citrus dressing - it sounds like something for The Ladies Who Lunch. But it was very good, and any sweetness was under absolutely strict control. I don't care for sweet salads, but I liked this. (When I said this aloud, another attendee replied, "I do like them, and I like this, too.)
Two entrees also were noteworthy, uncommonly tasty versions of menu warhorses. Salmon filets are gently hot-smoked and served with a smoked tomato coulis, a surprise to the tongue and a party to the palate.
The other entree was chicken. Let me preface this by saying that you haven't lived until you've heard a French chef, here the estimable Damien Faure, pronounce the words "beer can chicken". Yes. The chicken is moist and flavorful and the rub Faure has created is an assertive one. Here's hoping it doesn't get dumbed down lest it offend a very cautious diner.
They're throwing out the white tablecloths and encouraging people to order the way they want to - all appetizers, dessert first, just forget the fancy protocol.
And there's rumors of outside dining coming by next summer for the Ritz.
The Grill at The Ritz Carlton
100 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Smoking: No, but cigar lounge next door
The single best thing I think I ate on the trip in May was an omelet Arnold Bennett at The Delaunay. Made with smoked haddock, plenty of cream and, combining two traditional versions of it, both hollandaise sauce and cheese, the whole thing glazed under the grill before it's served. I'd read about them for years, and passed up a chance for my favorite English breakfast, a kipper, to try one. Very rich, and I practically wept when I couldn't finish it all. The Delaunay is an elegant place near Covent Garden that does a booming breakfast business, and is so civilized, they provide newspapers. Excellent service, professional and welcoming.
London is expensive, and the dollar is currently pretty weak against the pound. We'll talk more about this in a bit when I offer a few bits on shopping, but while we're on the subject of breakfast, I had one at the Churchill Hyatt Regency near Marble Arch. They do a buffet for 30 pounds, which brings it in a few pennies over $50. No kippers there, I noticed, but plenty of nice Scottish salmon. Not nearly as large a variety as what one might find at their hotels in Asia, and mostly pretty ordinary stuff, good-to-excellent quality but little that was truly exciting. The single thing that absolutely sang was the hummus. That's right. The hotel has a large Middle Eastern clientele so the presence of it was no surprise. I have read about hummus that was described as silky, but I never came across it until the Churchill. I think part of the secret may be plenty of olive oil and tahini. Aside from the exquisite texture, the flavor was great, carefully seasoned and with the potential to be quite addictive.
The antidote to $50 breakfasts is, quite rightly, a fish and chip shop. Between Sloane Square, the entry to Chelsea, and Victoria Station, is The Friars Inn on Elizabeth Street. At the periphery of neighborhoods out of "Upstairs, Downstairs", it's a very simple little place, office worker clientele during the day, quieter at night. I repeat my advice of a few days ago not to get your fish and chips at a pub, especially one that's part of a chain. The Friars Inn is just down the block from The Ebury Wine Bar, much spiffed up from my first visit many years ago, but just as pleasant and welcoming.
And two blocks from the Churchill, just off the uproar of Oxford Street, is a modern Indian spot called Roti Chai, quite inexpensive given the neighborhood and quite good. The main level features lighter Indian street food; I read that there's a lower level with a more traditional menu, but at lunch there was no offer of it. This is a lentil-based crispy snack with a tamarind sauce.
Over two visits, I spent two out of five weeks in London, and on the whole, it really looks like the happening food scene is moving east, east of Covent Garden, east of The City. The neighborhoods aren't so beautiful and the history so famous, but that's where the action is. There are at least four restaurants there I'm aiming for on my next visit.
On the non-food front, I was shocked to see that Westminster Abbey is charging 18 pounds, around $30, for admission. Free to come in and pray, otherwise go to a side entrance and pay. No discussion of what happens to folks who pray and then stroll around admiring the interior. And three royal properties, the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace are all charging similar prices, although there are passes that reduce the cost somewhat. Happily, great museums like theVictoria & Albert, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection are still free. They're also often pleasant spots for tea - this is one of the dining rooms at the V&A.
Shopping? Oxford Street is still the hugely busy heart of it. Selfridges is still fun, but mostly I prefer elsewhere. Still, if you're looking for inexpensive right-now clothing, head for Primark, at each end of Oxford, Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch. Very inexpensive and equally chaotic but fun, especially if you're young.
Harrods? Wonderful food halls to view but overall increasingly geared to high-income non-Brits. If you absolutely must bring back a small gift with the Harrods logo (and there are now a plethora of them), the duty-free shops have Harrods branches and the tchotchkes are less expensive there. Slightly.
Elsewhere, there are interesting shopping streets. Marylebone High Street has lots of more local shops, including the wonderful Daunt Books+. Lambs Conduit Street - I don't make these names up, you know - in Bloomsbury is another small shopping street, a little more upmarket than Marylebone High Street, and it has the headquarters and bookstore of Persephone Books, which reprints "neglected ficrtion and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) authors". Fascinating and, for some of us, as irresistible as the omelet Arnold Bennett.
Portobello Road Market on Saturday is mobbed. The serious antique dealers who have shops there are open during the week; Saturday brings flea market-type stands. At the north end, there's food being sold, too, viz, these spiral potato chips. But the main reason to go for some is Books For Cooks a half-block off Portobello Road. It's across the street from a good spice shop and the shop where "Notting Hill" was filmed.
And on Sunday, there's the Brick Lane Market in east London. Coming in from the south, at the Aldgate East tube station, one thinks one's in the wrong spot. It's quiet, businesses are closed. but things build. Old buildings like the former Truman Brewery turned into flea markets, open air stalls - and an immense amount of international food, not just the South Asian that fills Brick Lane's restaurants. Curry Mate and I had Malaysian pancakes, mine filled with coconut and black rice, hers with Nutella. At the far north end, heading for the Shoreditch High Street tube station, it becomes very basic, men selling computer parts and bicycle wheels. Keep an eye out for street art on walls and stuck to utility poles; this part of London is a hotbed of it.
You will be happier with comfortable shoes, a credit card or two that has the chip mechanism in it and a vigorous curiosity.
A handsome restaurant, Katie's Pizza and Pasta is, but a little wonky. No longer affiliated with its original site across from the Esquire Theatre, the new Katie's has a larger menu and a larger dining room. True to the times, it's noisy, but the outdoor tables - which were usable for perhaps a month since they opened, I suspect - are on the side away from Manchester Road, so they'll be quieter.
With a name like this, there's no surprise that a meal might be a carbohydrate festival, of course. We began with a burrata plate to share. Burrata, mozzarella's softer, richer cousin, arrived in its traditional ball, with some mushrooms, both tame and wild, sauteed in garlic and olive oil. Two crostini rode alongside. (Question: If there were three of us, why don't servers offer an extra slice or just ask the kitchen to add a third?) The burrata was properly creamy, the mushrooms rich and flavorful. Only the crostini, two slices of bread that had the stale crunch of having been left out to air dry for a long time, didn't come up to standards. Having to assemble crostini isn't too much to ask. But these were slices more than two bites each, and trying to break them up left a shower of pieces.
Pappardelle with a wild boar ragu was excellent. The pasta, housemade, just slightly chewy, wore sauce that managed to be flavorful but not too heavy on a hot late spring night. Part of this may have been due to the sprinkling of lemon peel and parsley called gremolata, not traditional with this particular item but good with many richer red-meat dishes.
On to the pizza. These are all about 10 inches in diameter - there are smaller ones at lunch - and made in a wood-burning oven. It's not quite a true Neapolitan style - the crust is a little thicker, a little crisper, and lacking the burned spots that are so controversial among St. Louis pizza fans. A margherita, the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil and often the best way to check out pizza basics, was competent but not the sort of comfort-food basic one might hope for. The basil is added before introducing the pie into the oven, cutting its flavor but adding bits of crispy.
The second pizza, titled Kup's Egg, starred more of those mushrooms, thickish slices of a fennel-scented sausage, fontina cheese, an egg and fresh thyme. More complex flavors, of course, and heartier, very tasty indeed. The egg, yolk still mostly liquid, spread appealingly after the first slice was removed. The crust was so firm, however, that it was difficult to swipe it, even the edge, to pick up a meaningful amount of the yolk. A request for a little bread to wipe it up with? No bread served in the evenings. This seems unusual for a restaurant with such strong Italian leanings. None left from lunch? No good answer, but reconnoitering the lunch menu shows no sandwiches. Finally the server, who had really been very good all through the meal, brightened. "I'll bring you pizza points, okay?" We decided she had said "pita", and the narrow wedges, fresh and hot and brushed with a little olive oil, almost addictive, certainly seemed like pita. Whatever the name, they served the purpose and were eaten like French fries, down to the very last one. We have all been witness to the shrinking bread basket in the last few years as the economy wavered. But this was a surprise.
Ricotta doughnut holes for dessert, and some housemade gelato - vanilla was a snoozer but the dark(ish) chocolate and the strawberry were quite good. The doughnut holes, sometimes called bomboloni, had the moist, slightly coarse texture that ricotta often gives. Rather unsweet, with a light dusting of confectioners' sugar and a swirl of honey on the plate, they were easy to share and easy to go down.
Very good service on the whole, on a busy night when our table had a leisurely schedule. Certainly the bread policy isn't the server's fault, and she came up with a good solution. Just be prepared to speak loudly.
9568 Manchester Rd., Rock Hill
Lunch and Dinner daily, Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
The Muny's 96th season kicked off with, in effect, a shout of "Five, six, seven EIGHT!" Monday night as it put "Billy Elliot The Musical" on stage. The show itself may not be the best musical to cross a Broadway stage in the last decade - for instance, it slows a bit late in the second act - but there's a decent story line, taken from the film of the same name, and the score is more than respectable compared to most of its contemporaries. Thank you, Elton John, four words I never thought I'd be writing.
It doesn't feel like a dance musical, thanks to its gritty setting in a coal mine town in the north of England during Margaret Thatcher's evisceration of the unions. But it surely is. The choreography, done on Broadway by Peter Darling and re-created for our marvelous monster of a Muny stage, is remarkable. Early in the first act, the magic emerges as police, miners and dance students work together.
Tade Biesinger is the lad in question, who finds himself in a ballet class by accident. Great footwork and lots of grace for this fellow, who's been Billy on Broadway and in London. Ben Nordstrom, seen on St. Louis stages for more than a decade, it seems like, takes on the role of Tony, Billy's elder brother, like a hungry attack dog, just what's called for, a new Nordstrom for many of us, and a pleasure to see. Speaking of locals, Steve Isom, as Billy's dad's good mate George, may well be doubling as Maggie Thatcher in a Christmas number. And dad, Daniel Oreskes, and the dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, delight.
A few quibbles among the delights. Sometimes the accents are too thick for our weak Midwestern ears, and the jokes too British - how many in the crowd knew the word "wanker", to take one example.? At least once, the tide turned too far the other way, at the Christmas party and a fellow announced he was Santa Claus. All good anglophiles (guilty, your lordship) know that it's Father Christmas, but the the followup joke was leaning on the line, so.... And I do wish the delightfully nasty lyrics to "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" were more understandable.
But this is a marvelous show. The finale is the sort of number the Muny stage was made for. My strong advice is to revel in it and forget getting to the parking lot so quickly.
Billy Elliot The Musical
through June 22